Grave Sight (Gollancz S.F.)
by Charlaine Harris
Review by Juliet McKenna
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575078833
Date: 18 January 2007 List Price £9.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Gollancz throws their hat into the ring that is the supernatural thriller with a strong female protagonist. I've commented before what an overcrowded market this is, but it is without doubt, an area with huge commercial rewards. Gollancz has a lucrative market and so we welcome Gollancz Romance and their lead title, Charlaine Harris's Grave Sight. Harris, of course, is well established in this field, being a prolific author of a number of different series of novels and has been previously published in the UK by Orbit. Grave Sight introduces Harper Connelly "...a gutsy new heroine who makes her living finding the dead - telepathically!"
A keen reader of Charlaine Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books, I open this first in a new series feeling the mild regret of setting aside an established favourite. Happily, that's countered by the interest of seeing what this talented writer can do with a new scenario and fresh faces. Though in these situations, there's the faintest concern that perhaps these people and places won't be quite as satisfying. More immediately, will enjoying this story on its own merits be hampered by the inevitable temptation to compare the book to Charlaine Harris's earlier writing? I don't know, so the only thing to do is to start reading.
Comparison is something we can move swiftly past as our new heroine, Harper Connolly, is almost the antithesis of Sookie Stackhouse. Sookie is rooted in a particular, almost claustrophobically self-contained locale and intricately involved with its close-knit, often overtly fantastical inhabitants. Harper is a wanderer, estranged from her unpleasantly plausibly dysfunctional family, travelling through what is most assuredly the world we all live in today. With her step-brother Tolliver to help her, she makes a living from people willing to pay for to use her particular, peculiar talent.
Since being hit by a near-fatal lightning strike as a child, Harper can sense the presence of dead people. The closer and more recently dead they are, the stronger their impact on Harper, something that isolates her still further. As this is very much the modern world, she has to cope with contemptuous disbelief, religious outrage or outright hostility when people learn what she claims to be able to do. Then there's their desperation when they realise she really can do it, as well as the curious expectation that she should be offering her services for free. Consequently, she keeps everyone but Tolliver at a distance and their relationship has its tensions as a result of this enforced closeness. Harper's spare, unemotional narrative never seeks or expects sympathy, even for her understandable terror of thunderstorms and their physical impact upon her. Sometimes abrasive in her own defense, she's all the more stoically appealing and intriguing a heroine as a result.
In this instance, in a small town in the Ozarks, Sybil Teague, widow and grieving mother, wants Harper to find her son's missing girlfriend, to prove the boy wasn't a murderer as well as a suicide. Looking through Harper's eyes, we get a detached, sharp-eyed view of the town of Sarne, touching lightly on familiar features of the small-town USA stereotype without falling into cliché. As an outsider prepared for unfriendliness, Harper is an astute, occasionally unsympathetic observer of the attitudes and motives of the people who live there, with no investment in their secrets. Since her talent includes the ability to see the final moments of the deceased, she finds out more than her client expects when she finds the dead girl. This prompts further questions, hostility and ultimately violence by someone who doesn't want any answers uncovered. Charlaine Harris does a sound job of unfolding a solidly believable murder mystery where the dénouement is integral to people and place alike.
This book rests on the boundary between crime fiction and fantasy writing with its single supernatural element. It's reminiscent of the TV series Medium, though in no sense imitative. There are similar positive echoes of programmes like Criminal Minds or Without a Trace, where experts come to a small town to uncover some unwelcome truth. These stories can only work if setting, characters and dialogue are all immediately credible and that's certainly the case here. Better yet, Charlaine Harris shows how much more depth and atmosphere a book can offer compared to an hour's television. As Harper hones her skills walking through a long-established cemetery, the historical reality of death that she experiences contrasts forcefully with the fears and fancies of death portrayed in the modern media, fictional and factual alike. Harper knows better than most how precarious life truly is, the reality constantly underlined by her own need to pay her bills and keep herself and Tolliver safe. But she won't let hostility from the local youths or the offensive scepticism of local law enforcement stop her doing what needs to be done. The dead need to be found.
As this story ends with Harper and Tolliver driving away, I look forward to finding out what awaits the two of them on the road to Memphis.